Amidst a lifetime of events, some memories are like scorpions that guard the gate of our own past. In my journey to understand as much as possible about life writing, I consider the question many aspiring life writers raise. “Should I approach painful memories, and if so should the memories become part of my story?” Of course there is no one right answer, so I look for lessons contained within painful memoirs I read.
I recently read “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” by Jim McGarrah, an engaging and well-written memoir about a soldier’s experience in Vietnam. I have a special affinity with Vietnam, because I was one of the students on the home front pleading to bring those boys home. Now after all these years, I finally get to see what I was protesting and it’s far more disturbing than I could have imagined.
While the author brings me into the jungle, and lets me share his pain, his psychological reality is so enormous I wanted a guidebook to help me find my way through his and my emotions. It turns out I found such a guidebook, “Achilles in Vietnam, Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” by medical doctor and PTSD specialist, Jonathan Shay. For years, Shay has been working with Vietnam vets who have been so unnerved by their war experience that the memories yank them back into the fray, without warning.
Shay has explained trauma in an unusual way. He juxtaposes quotes from Homer’s Iliad side by side with conversations among Vietnam vets. It turns out that Homer was an expert on the psychological trauma of war, and this ancient epic that has been lurking in literature classes for centuries contains insights that help Shay explain what soldiers feel.
Soldiers’ love and loss
When I first heard someone claim that soldiers risk their lives because of their love for each other, I thought the word “love” was preposterous. But Shay and Homer convinced me that buddies on the battlefield do indeed care about each other with an intimacy we expect from brothers, or “best buddies.” (English is a bit weak in this regard, but apparently the Greek word philia comes closer.) What I don’t understand is what it must feel like to see such a beloved comrade explode into parts, vaporize, or bleed out in front of your eyes. It’s incomprehensible, and yet it happens, and changes a soldier’s life profoundly. As Jim McGarrah says in “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” “At that moment I started going insane.”
Absence of community compassion
When people in civilian life lose a loved one, they attend services in the company of community and family, and sit quietly in prayer to honor the dead. Shay calls this shared grief “communalization” and says it is one of the most important factors that keeps people balanced after loss. It is almost entirely missing from the combat soldier’s experience. When a soldier loses a buddy, the body is destroyed, lost, or shipped out in a bag. Soldiers are not encouraged to show their emotions. They get right back to fighting, and if they try to talk about what happened when they get home, civilians are unable to relate. The isolation feeds upon itself and creates a cauldron of inner pain.
Demonize the enemy at your own peril
In Homer’s time, truces were regularly declared to gather up and mourn those who had fallen on the battlefield. This act of mutual respect helped keep everyone in harmony with a universe that would continue to exist long after this particular war was over. In modern warfare, soldiers increase their will to kill by convincing themselves that the people they are fighting are less than human. Shay claims this attitude leads to atrocity and despair on and off the battlefield.
Defiling the body
Achilles ties Hector’s body to a chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy, using it as a weapon to demoralize the enemy. When I first read the book I thought it indicated that Greeks were a barbaric culture. But according to Shay, my assumption was incorrect. Achilles’ moral downfall meant that he as an individual had fallen into a barbaric state, and this fall according to Shay, was one of the central tragedies of the Iliad. During the Vietnam War, soldiers on both sides defiled bodies in order to fill the enemy with hatred, fear, and disgust. Loss of respect for the body undermines what it means to be human, and contributes to the unraveling of sanity that lingers long after the war is finished.
Berserking or “losing it”
I’ve seen soldiers in movies, screaming and running towards the enemy. I thought of it as an entertaining bit of theatrical exaggeration. I now realize that this is a very real state of temporary insanity in which soldiers slip outside the bounds of rational thought.
“Berserking” drastically increases the risk of death, and the results for those who survive are also tragic. Jim McGarrah, in a state of exhaustion and rage, performed reckless acts that haunted him for the rest of his life. Jonathan Shay suggests that modern military training actually encourages this loss of control. He warns that this tolerance towards “berserking” is a misguided strategy that hurts soldiers during their irrational behavior, and later damages their ability to return to civilian life.
The value of reading and writing painful memoirs
After Jim McGarrah left the war, there was no science of PTSD and soldiers were told to take it like a man or forget it. So when it finally dawned on McGarrah that he needed help, he had to overcome enormous resistance. He did finally reach out, and even though he doesn’t go into detail about the psychological work he did at the Veterans Administration, I already know the outcome. He faced his memories, no matter how horrific, turned them into a story and from those stories created a book. Thanks to the magic of reading and writing, I have spent hours with him in the jungles, accompanied him during his berserk episodes, sat with him in the recovery room after the wound that got him back to civilian life, and shared some pangs of his emotions, as well as one empathetic individual can do.
By sharing his story, McGarrah has opened himself up to one of the most important elements that veterans are missing, the “communalization” of his grief. Jim McGarrah and I have shared a few hours of pain and commiseration about some of the most painful experiences a human must endure, the loss of life and love during combat. My belief is that in the process of sharing these hours, we have regained a little of what was lost.
Jim McGarrah’s “A Temporary Sort of Peace” was awarded the Legacy Nonfiction Prize for 2010 from the Eric Hoffer Foundation.
To read an exclusive interview with the author, click here.
For a readable explanation of PTSD and its treatment, read “Sanctuary” by Dr. Sandra Bloom, based on years of clinical work, mainly with survivors of systematic child abuse.
To read my essay about another traumatic memoir, “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, click here. She quotes another widely regarded source book for PTSD is “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith Herman.
Other war memoirs:
Tracy Kidder, “My Detachment”
Tobias Wolff, “In the Pharoah’s Army”
William Manchester, “Goodbye Darkness”
Many soldiers walk away from deadly injury and regain their sense of purpose. For “Shades of Darkness” author, George Brummell, the post-war challenges of coping with his blindness became his urgent task, and he went on to increase his education, and become director of the Blinded Veterans Association.
Memoirs of people who have crashed and burned are not just about soldiers. Many of life’s most severe problems dismantle the sense of self that keeps us safe. In this article I talk about four people who walked into traps of various sorts and felt their lives becoming dismantled.
More about the psychological trauma of war
Jonathan Shay says that an important contribution to a soldier’s unraveling is a sense of betrayal, that the organization is not protecting him. For example, faulty weapons in Vietnam were interpreted as a sign that the military really wanted the soldiers to die. I knew that most Vietnam soldiers felt betrayed by the lack of civilian support, but I was surprised to learn that many soldiers hated the officers who were directing them in battle. The hatred was based on the belief that decisions were made more for the officer’s own career advancement than on the safety of soldiers or effective military strategy. Shay suggests this attitude about rear-echelon officers had a parallel in the Iliad. In ancient mythology the gods on Mount Olympus manipulated the outcome of the battle based on childish selfish desires.
The soldiers in Homer’s time used mythology and rituals to appease the gods. Modern soldiers have no such talismans. Once a modern soldier becomes convinced “The System” is capricious, irrational, and malevolent, they cross into a state of alienation from society and authority, and many of them carry this alienation back with them when they return home. Such betrayal from above undermines the basis for a sane, healthy energetic involvement in society.
Follow this link to read a powerful article about Jonathan Shay’s introduction to Moral Injury of war.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.